The latest volley has been fired in the war against the long-term unemployed. This week, Congress will be voting on whether to discontinue eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (food stamps) for many recipients, including unemployed persons who have been out of work longer than three months and are not enrolled in job training. The Program stands to be cut by $40 million. As usual, the ones who will be most affected by this change would be those of us who are single, long-term unemployed, and over fifty. I read the blog from Jim Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). He made many fine points about how the cuts would affect children, parents, women, rural Americans, business owners, farmers, educators, health care advocates and veterans, but he made no mention of the millions of single long-term unemployed persons who would be left hungry and even-more-hopeless if these cuts are approved.
This morning, National Public Radio played a clip from an interview with a “surfer dude” who was buying lobster with his SNAP benefits. In the sound byte, he proudly swiped his EBT card and snidely thanked taxpayers for providing him with the culinary good life. Apparently, this interview is being used to illustrate how lazy people who are eating “high on the hog” are abusing the program.
Well, I am one “Hogg” who finds SNAP to be a godsend, not an excuse to gorge myself with steak, filet mignon, and Evian water. (BTW, sparkling water cannot be bought with SNAP.) Unlike “surfer dude,” I do not go into my local grocery store, proudly brandishing my EBT card, heading for the high-priced seafood counter. In fact, I’ve never bought lobster in my life. But last week, I did get shrimp. I used it to make a pot of gumbo, which provided me with dinner for three days I even shared it with a friend, who is also unemployed, over-fifty and receiving SNAP benefits.
I don’t enjoy being unemployed and I definitely don’t enjoy using food stamps. In grocery stores, I try to discretely palm the card in my hand as I swipe it, to avoid the looks of distain from other shoppers. But even that doesn’t always save me from embarrassment. Recently, I tried in vain to use my card at a local specialty food store. After being told to call the number on the back of the card, which I did with no success, I was told to contact my eligibility worker, as if I had done something wrong. I used the card later that day at another grocery with no problem. But the manager never once tested their system to see if the error was theirs, not mine. When I was homeless in Santa Monica for three months last year, I used to visit a similar store to get nutritious food before spending the night in an emergency winter shelter. On more than one occasion, their card reader wasn’t accepting EBT cards, which I didn’t discover until standing in line and attempting to complete my transaction. I still cringe when I remember the glares I got when the clerk announced that I could not use my SNAP benefits due to a malfunction. Every time I use my card, I feel a little less like a real person, a reminder that I’m not a productive and valued member of society.
Since 2009, I have had only two part time jobs, both of which were eliminated. I don’t know what I would do without food stamps. I have been homeless for almost two years now, spending the last eighteen months with friends. I buy, prepare and store my food separately from theirs, while I diligently look for work. I can’t, and don’t expect, them to provide food for me, as well as a place to rest my head. Donations to food banks are dwindling as the need increases. And how are people supposed to get to food banks (and job training for that matter) with no income? I try to use my SNAP benefits wisely, to purchase salad ingredients and items that can provide multiple meals. I only eat two meals a day, as three meals is a luxury that I only indulge in when I am working. For me, “splurge” means buying cookies to sweeten the sourness of life, not binging on lobster. Who will hire an older woman with two degrees? I have had potential employers say that I “wouldn’t be happy here,” with my background and education. My response is, “I would be happy just to be able to afford to buy my own food.”
Sometimes, I wonder if this country just wants to eliminate all of us older, long-term unemployed persons. Our lingering efforts to look for work make the weekly unemployment and job creation stats look bad. We are too young for retirement and too old to be hired. And I have the unlucky luck of being in good physical and mental health, not eligible for any type of disability benefits. I have spent almost thirty years helping others in the areas that are booming right now – public assistance, unemployment insurance, and homeless shelters – but potential employers would rather that I be a consumer of these services instead of a service provider. Millions of older, long-term employed persons continue to apply for jobs and learn new skills to no avail. No matter how much job training we get, we will still be the last hired. What are we supposed to do? According to Congress, the next step for many of us might be to starve to death.
Join the SNAP Helps Us All campaign, created by the Sacramento Hunger Coalition and the California Hunger Action Coalition, by going to www.sachousingalliance.org.